Monday, July 20, 2009

Communication Francophone

Two weeks ago, I started a month-long French class. Every Monday to Friday at four PM, I now head over to a language school across from Jour et Nuit (a coffee house and well-known landmark on this side of the medina’s Bab Chellah) for a two hour cours de communication. My teacher, monsieur Aziz, is a self-proclaimed thespian in his fifties who loves Molière and Hugo. Every afternoon he attempts to animate his weary students with larger-than-life gestures and facial expressions, walking back and forth across the front of the classroom as though it is a stage from which he attempts to enthrall a difficult audience.* Occasionally he coaxes us out of our seats for some creative play of our own, in which we awkwardly participate, as he reminds us that games are not about winning, but about sharing – and communicating, of course.

I had decided long ago that it was time for a class to ignite the francophone cells in my brain (I know they’re there! I’m just too nervous to ignite them on my own, not knowing for sure that they’ll work the way they’re supposed to), and three weeks ago I took a placement test at this school. As the consultant grading my test remarked that I seemed to have all the grammar down, I explained that I just wanted to learn how to speak sans devoir réfléchir – without having to think about it – and that it wouldn’t hurt to expand my vocabulary. The consultant seemed to know exactly what I was looking for, and enrolled me in this course.

I must admit that it is a different kind of cours de communication than I had expected. Focused less on linguistic barriers than psychological ones, we work on things like learning how to speak without getting flustered by attention from others, discerning the purpose or intent behind a communicative message (the acte illocutoire), and evaluating each other’s efficiency in getting a message across. The goal of this course is, in monsieur Aziz’s words, nothing less than a change in our sense of self, and the elimination of certains sentiments négatives.

This is not precisely what I had had in mind; this course is not so much about learning how to speak sans réfléchir, but rather about how to effectively turn what you want to say into an actual expressed message. But in the end, I figure, communication is communication – does it really matter what the nature is of the barriers that keep you from living up to your potential? What I needed is a push in the back, an environment where I was forced to speak up – and that’s essentially what I’ve gotten. And I do notice some difference. I seem less worried about just speaking, and am discovering that I can make myself perfectly understood in almost any situation. The only barrier I have left is the intimidation I feel around my very adeptly francophone co-workers…

My fellow students are, for the most part, timid high school graduates stuck in that liminal phase between puberty and adulthood, where you suddenly realize that your decisions not only matter, but can affect the entire course of your life. As we went around on day one to introduce ourselves, they all very un-timidly attested to a desire to overcome their shyness, and I imagine that, faced with the weighty decision of what-to-do-next, these young adults are perhaps attempting with this course to turn themselves into direct and fearless go-getters. Timidity is a theme they repeatedly bring up themselves. As we subjectively evaluate each others’ efforts at communication,** students constantly remark that the speaker’s main problem seems to be shyness. “Is this a problem you often encounter?” they’ll ask in therapeutic voices. “Do you have the same trouble when you speak Arabic?”

There is an intimate atmosphere, a sense of we’re-all-in-this-together, that seems to put everyone at ease and invites everyone to speak. However, this intimacy gets disturbed once in a while by my presence. I am clearly an outsider, being the only non-Moroccan in the room, the only one who seems to already be familiar with the communicative theories monsieur Aziz enlightens us on (he even gave us a basic tutorial on semiology – I had an instant déjà-vu of my days as a first-year anthropology grad student…), and the only one who seems to be here for linguistic improvement. Monsieur Aziz takes advantage of this sometimes, and uses me as a kind of stick behind the door to remind everyone to do his or her best.

“If you don’t speak up and share a story,” he will say, “what will Charlotte here think about Moroccans and their ability to communicate? Do you want to give her the impression that Moroccans cannot express themselves about this particular subject?”

The students will then smile, they’ll look at me, their timidity will re-emerge, and I’ll feel as though I’ve become part of the ‘other side’, an onlooker and observer, rather than a fellow student.

This happens at other moments here and there, too – like when we’re asked to prepare a presentation as a group, and the other members in my circle begin to speak the Arabic they’re ultimately more comfortable with. There’s always a moment where they’ll suddenly stop in their tracks, look at me, and begin apologizing. I’ll then tell them that it’s ok, mashi moushkil (no problem), that I understand what they’re saying – and they’ll smile a bit at my budding knowledge of Arabic and continue, but the intimacy is gone and I can see that their self-consciousness is back.

And I do it myself, too. There are moments, when monsieur Aziz explains a theory I’m already familiar with, for example, when I step back and transform from participant to observer. I’ll look at the ways in which our teacher interacts with the students, and the way they react to him. I’ll notice how students’ comments seem very crafted, full of buzz-words they know are important in this class (like “timide”), very catered toward what they think the teacher wants to hear. I’ll remark how very few people seem just to say what they think – very few apart from the teacher, that is, and I’ll notice how the students get a little flustered when monsieur Aziz brings up topics that are not commonly discussed in public. Like how you met your first boyfriend, or how it’s possible to be an atheist.

And so I put myself on the outside, trying to be the ethnographer, hoping to get an insider’s view of a Moroccan classroom. I will go quiet, waiting to see how others respond to a question thrown into the room by monsieur Aziz, smiling at his expectant expression. Until I realize that I am thereby thwarting my own success as a student in this class – which is ultimately the role I signed on (and paid) to play.

But I’m enjoying myself – I like the class, I observe with interest as the tone of the session shifts between ‘intimate’ and ‘performative’, and I’m even a little intrigued at how I myself morph from participant into observer, and back. It’s a new kind of hybridity that I’m feeling constantly as I set up my own life here in Rabat – as I try to figure out which parts of my experiences here are research, and which are just that, life.

* there is an argument to be made for the idea that teaching is a kind of performance, of course… and vice versa, that performance is a kind of teaching?
** it took the teacher at least twenty minutes to explain what he meant by such subjective evaluation, and how it worked. The students seemed to have a very difficult time understanding that there is not simply one correct way, and one wrong way, to communicate. That it is ok, and sometimes better, to evaluate without passing a definitive judgment. That there may be no such thing as a completely accurate and objective judgment in the first place.

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